South Carolina takes aim at lynching law because it hurt blacks
The law originally was designed to stop the Jim Crow-era lynching of black men. But in recent years, South Carolina's lynching law mainly had targeted African-American gang members.
In what’s being seen as an attempt at redemption by a state touched by recent political embarrassment, a panel of South Carolina lawmakers has voted to change the state’s lynching law.Skip to next paragraph
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Why? Ostensibly because prosecutors had abused it to put bar-fight participants in prison for up to 20 years. But the real issue ran even deeper, a key lawmaker acknowledges: For decades, the law has been used to address African-American gang activity, with over half of all lynching charges and convictions being levied against blacks.
The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission voted Monday to rename the law “assault and battery by a mob” and to soften consequences for situations in which no one was killed or seriously injured in an attack by two or more people on a single victim.
The emotional and historical power of the word “lynching” – especially in the Deep South, where the majority of lynchings happened – has long been seen by critics as especially cruel when applied to instances in which black men are arrested.
'Lynching is a particular type of crime'
“Lynching is a particular type of crime that has been recognized socially and by the state as having certain distinct attributes, and so the [South Carolina lynching law] is a corruption not only of the idea of what a lynching is, but also the historical memory of what a lynching is,” says University of North Carolina history Prof. Fitzhugh Brundage, who has written on black historical memory in the South since the Civil War.
“If three juveniles beating on another juvenile who’s a member of another school gang is considered a lynching, then lynching is absolutely pervasive in America,” he adds.
The South Carolina lynching law has been used to prosecute both blacks and whites, but came under fire in 2003 when the Associated Press reported that it was being frequently used and that 69 percent of its targets were young black men, and 67 percent of those convicted for lynching were black.
Critics point out that Deep South states were never so aggressive in pursuing lynching charges when blacks in the South feared actual mob killings in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Lynching law a tool to fight gang crime?
For law enforcement agencies, however, the law had become an effective tool to fight urban gang crime. Former Charleston, S.C., police chief Reuben Greenberg, the city’s first black chief, told the AP that he had used it many times, primarily to control gang problems in the old port city.
Trey Walker, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry McMaster, told the AP in 2003 that since there’s no mention of race in the statue, “The law is colorblind.”
But that explanation didn’t ring true with the Sentencing Reform Commission, whose changes still have to be approved by the legislature.
“It was brought to our attention that, ‘Look, this name has a negative connotation and people are being charged with something that really has nothing to do with what people perceive to be lynching,’ “ says Rep. Murrell Smith, the Republican chairman of the reform commission.